PS5 and Xbox Series X, Six Months In: An Assessment
Where do these rivals stand and how does 2021 look like for either?
So it's now been 6 months since Sony's and Microsoft's newest and most powerful home entertainment systems, the PlayStation5 and the Xbox Series X, have launched - with "launched" being the operative word, as "been available" would not actually be true. Both companies have faced severe problems in that regard due to the pandemic and the general component crisis the whole tech industry is going through. Both systems have been extremely difficult to find, units appearing online or in retail stores are sold in seconds - unfortunately to scalpers in many cases - and the problem is nowhere near to getting fixed yet. Still, there's a number of interesting observations to be made regarding the PS5 and XSX, some of which may prove to be important for their future.
Let's get the obvious out of the way first: PlayStation5 is in the lead. Sony's system has sold almost twice as many units as Microsoft's most powerful system, exceeding 8.22 million PS5 (both editions) versus 4.9 million Xbox Series X and Series S. It's highly likely that all four devices would have sold more units were there any available to consumers, yet here we are. As for the reasons why the PS5 has sold more than the Xbox Series X, to which it is more easily comparable, brand loyalty and exclusive games seem to have made a difference. There’s little reason to buy an Xbox Series X right now unless one needs to play specific older games at higher framerates and/or resolutions.
That is not to say, though, that the first 6 months of the PS5 in the market have been a triumph or anything. Sony's new system has offered PlayStation fans a few reasons to go after it, yes, but they were far and few between. There was Demon's Souls (for people being into that sort of thing) and the two Spider-man titles (which were also available on PS4 though) at launch, then Returnal a few weeks ago (which is very good but not of system-seller caliber) and... that's it. No other PS5 exclusives worth mentioning (Destruction AllStars did not exactly set the world on fire) for a stretch of 5 months. As in the case of Xbox Series X, just being able to play older games on the PS5 in higher resolution or at more frames per second is not really what people buy new home entertainment systems for.
What has become apparent during the last six months, though, is that pretty soon - as soon as 2022 by the look of things - we may end up not comparing system sales at all when talking about Sony's and Microsoft's place in the gaming market. There may be no point. Their strategies differ so much that the whole "console wars" thing is not easily applicable to those two anymore. Sony seems to follow the battleplan that led it to victory the last time around: sell as many PS5 systems as possible on the back of exclusives and great third-party partnerships, hoping that momentum will carry the new PlayStation beyond the 25-30 million threshold quickly enough so as to make it the default choice for consumers.
What Microsoft is focused on doing is give to as many people as possible reasons to subscribe to the Game Pass service. Whether they'll be playing the games included in that subscription on Xbox Series S, on Xbox Series X, on PC or even on mobile - when the xCloud service officially leaves beta - does not seem to be of interest to the Americans. The exclusive games Microsoft is planning to release will also work as Game Pass boosters rather than as Xbox system sellers. This device-agnostic approach does indeed make Microsoft seem like Netflix and Sony seem like Hollywood: content is still the driver behind both, but Microsoft is going for quantity and multiple points of entry, while Sony is going for quality and focused choice.
Based on these observations the last six months have been more beneficial to Microsoft than to Sony: the Americans have added several million more subscribers to the Xbox Pass user base despite the fact that not a single Xbox or PC exclusive of AAA caliber was added to its library. The Japanese are slowly building out their PS5 library - so as to offer a wide range of titles to consumers thinking of buying the newest PlayStation after production has caught up with demand - but their plan is based on device sales and those were not maximized due to availability issues.
So, in essence, this whole year will probably work as a proof of concept for both companies. Microsoft will pursue to add even more consumers to Game Pass's user base while Sony will release its first PS5 heavy-hitters in the form of Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart and Horizon: Forbidden West in order to bolster its offering. Can the former's subscription-based plan buy the company the place it seeks in the games market, even if Xbox sales remain low? Can the latter's device-based plan lead to the same results as the last time around? There are several other factors to consider, yes. But it will be interesting to re-assess where these two different plans take Sony and Microsoft in, say, a year's time from now. Will a clearer picture emerge then? We'll just have to wait and see.